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"Work Harder to Earn Less": Why the French Are Raising Hell in the Streets

The establishment is trying to delegitimize the French strikers fighting for economic justice.
 
 
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The French are at it again -- out on strike, blocking transport, raising hell in the streets, and all that merely because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.  They must be crazy.

That, I suppose, is the way the current mass movement in France is seen -- or at least shown -- in much of the world, and above all in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about the current mass strikes in France is that they are not really about “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62”. This is rather like describing the capitalist free market as a sort of lemonade stand. A propaganda simplification of very complex issues.

It allows the commentators to go crashing through open doors.  After all, they observe sagely, people in other countries work until 65 or beyond, so why should the French balk at 62? The population is aging, and if the retirement age isn’t raised, the pension system will go broke paying out pensions to so many ancients.

However, the current protest movement is not about “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62”. It is about much more.

For one thing, this movement is an expression of exasperation with the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which blatantly favors the super-rich over the majority of working people in this country.  He was elected on the slogan, “Work more to earn more”, and the reality turns out to be work harder to earn less.  The Labor Minister who introduced the reform, Eric Woerth, got a job for his wife on the office staff of the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the Oreal cosmetics giant, at the same time that, as budget minister, he was overlooking her massive tax evasions. While tax benefits for the rich help empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to tear down the whole social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that “we can’t afford it”. 

The retirement issue is far more complex than “the age of retirement”.  The legal age of retirement means the age at which one may retire.  But the pension depends on the number of years worked, or to be more precise, on the number of cotisations (payments) into the joint pension scheme. On the grounds of “saving the system from bankruptcy”, the government is gradually raising the number of years of cotisations from 40 to 43 years, with indications that this will be stretched out further in the future.

As education is prolonged, and employment begins later, to get a full pension most people will have to work until 65 or 67.  A “full pension” comes to about 40 per cent of wages at the time of retirement.

But even so, that may not be possible.  Full time jobs are harder and harder to get, and employers do not necessarily want to retain older employees.  Or the enterprise goes out of business and the 58-year old employee finds himself permanently out of work.  It is becoming harder and harder to work full-time in a salaried job for over 40 years, however much one may want to.  Thus in practice, the Sarkozy-Woerth reform simply means reducing pensions. 

That, in fact, is what the European Union has recommended to all member states as an economy measure, intended, as with most current reforms, to reduce social costs in the name of “competitivity” -- meaning competition to attract investment capital.

Less qualified workers, who instead of pursuing studies may have entered the work force young, say at age eighteen, will have subscribed to the scheme for forty-two years at age 60 if indeed they manage to be employed all that time. Statistics show that their life expectancy is relatively short, so they need to leave early in order to enjoy any retirement at all.

 
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